Sage Advice from Our Resident Sage
Yitz and Blu Greenberg capturing what may be their first selfie at one of the many Wexner Heritage Summer Institutes they have attended over the last 30 years.
I’m guessing that few people in this world just happen to write a book while in the process of writing another book. But as our teacher, Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, says, this book basically wrote itself, emerging from a lifetime of teaching and drawing upon the words of our sages to make “divine instruction” accessible to those seeking. Sage Advice, Rabbi Greenberg’s latest contribution to the Jewish canon, is a powerful testament to the timeless wisdom of Pirkei Avot, known popularly as “Ethics of Our Fathers.” It is also a helpful entry point to his own considerable wisdom and a useful guide for those who seek to live more meaningful lives in a complicated world.
“Rav Yitz,” as many of his students affectionately refer to him, has been a teacher to so many of us over his 30 years of teaching in Wexner settings. We, his students, have emerged enriched, enlivened and more confident to lead as agents of change in the ongoing development of our great people.
Whether you have learned in person with Rav Yitz or just from a distance or are new to him entirely, Sage Advice is a joy to encounter and, I imagine, even more fun to sit over with a chevruta to discuss and debate. While it joins a venerable list of translations and commentaries of Pirkei Avot, it holds its own as a unique contribution. His new translation is accessible to a novice learner and sensitive to the nuances of Hebrew. His interspersed comments draw upon his sui generis moral voice and, in many cases, make the text come alive for today’s reader. Particularly useful are his historical background introductions to many of the mishnayot, which provide context for the sages’ words and brought me many “ah-haaa-that-makes-so- much-more-sense” moments.
I was drawn in by how Rav Yitz’s understanding of Jewish history comes to affect his read on the texts. He situates these texts in a period marked by instability, destruction and, ultimately, the reconstruction of a people seeking a new center of Jewish life. We, their inheritors, are still wrestling with building our lives around the ethics of those “fathers” two thousand years later.
In his commentary on the famous mishna of Shimon the Righteous (Chapter 1, Mishna 2), who teaches that the world stands on three pillars: Torah, divine service (Avodah) and living-kindness (gemillut chasadim), Rav Yitz encapsulates so much of how he has taught Torah for these many years:
“The sages made the study of Torah i.e., education, central to their program for the Jewish people. The mitzvah of Talmud Torah (torah study) became the core commandment of Judaism. The democratization of study inspired the masses and led them to internalize the Torah’s teachings. The outcome was that the sages accomplished what the prophets with their divine communications could not: the abolition of idolatry in the community and the attainment of a much higher level of observance and faithfulness to the covenant.”
In the transmission of the Torah by the sages, Rav Yitz sees a historical process whereby God reduces God’s revealed role in this world and empowers human agents to fulfill their destiny as partners in a not-yet-redeemed world. Rav Yitz holds up this accomplishment of the rabbis as a model for us. He argues that we are living through a parallel period in which God is even more hidden and humans are invited to take up full responsibility for realizing the covenant and repairing the world.
To do this, volunteers and professionals alike will have to step up — as the rabbis did 2,000 years ago. We have to learn a more visionary and sophisticated understanding of Torah and apply it creatively to lead the community in this unprecedentedly open society. To some extent, this is what Wexner programs are all about. The study of Torah is the means by which the Jewish people discover how to live out the divine-human partnership in this world.
In this way, Pirkei Avot works on the level of the individual’s daily navigation of the tricky waters of good living and upright behavior. It is for this reason that Rav Yitz identifies Pirkei Avot as a text that has been so dear to him throughout his life. As a lifelong student of mussar, the school of character development, Rav Yitz sees Pirkei Avot as the urtext of the genre of mentsch-making guides. Few people are as mentsch(y) as Rav Yitz, so if it worked for him, then it certainly couldn’t hurt for us to try too!
It is a tradition to study Pirkei Avot during the period between Pesach and Shavuot: no better time than now to try it.
Thanks to Koren Publishers, anyone in the Wexner Network can purchase a copy of Sage Advice at 25% off (and free shipping). Just use the code WEXNER25.
Rabbi Benjamin Berger is Program Director of the Wexner Heritage Program and Wexner Service Corps. Ben has been a student of Rabbi Yitz Greenberg for many years, a relationship that began when he was a seeking college student and happened to come across Rabbi Greenberg’s The Jewish Way and has grown in many ways since. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.